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About the Society

Birth of the Portland Marine Society

Excerpted from:
Portland Marine Society, 1796-1996
A Bicentennial History

Nicolas Dean & John K. Moulton

At five o’clock on the long, bright summer solstice afternoon of 21 June, 1796, a small group of Portland, Maine sea captains gathered at Thomas Motley’s Freemasons’ Arms tavern, a block or so from the waterfront. Earlier in the year they had successfully petitioned the Massachusetts General Court for incorporation, and on 27 February 1796 Governor Samuel Adams signed the act incorporating “John Thorlo and others into a Society by the name of the Portland Marine Society.” At that first meeting the Society elected seventeen members, and Captain John Thorlo President. For some unknown reason, one Stephen Ham, who had signed the petition for incorporation, never became a member. The initiation fee was set at eight dollars, a not inconsiderable sum of money in the eighteenth century, so the Society’s founders apparently were men of some substance.

The stated purposes of the new society were two-fold: first, “the promotion of the knowledge of navigation and seamanship,” and second, “the relief of decayed and disabled seamen, and the poor widows and orphans of deceased seamen.” To finance these worthwhile goals, in addition to his initiation fee each member was assessed twenty cents a month, to be paid to the Society at its quarterly meetings. By 1800 the Society had admitted fifty-five members. Initially at least two thirds of the Society’s membership was to consist of persons who “at the time of their admission are or have been, commanders of vessels,” though up to a third of the members might be “persons of other professions” if their election advanced the Society’s “benevolent design.” 

So who are we as the Portland Marine Society of today?

The serious mission of the Society at its conception has been addressed today by the technology, education and training of the 21st century, and as a profession that is very differently compensated than it was all those years ago.  Although our predecessors enjoyed some socializing along with “promoting of the knowledge of navigation and seamanship”, and “providing relief to the families of disabled or deceased seamen”, socializing is the main thrust of the Portland Marine Society now.  Socializing and the promotion of the rich history of the maritime profession.  As we go about performing our day to day responsibilities on the vessels we serve/served, we often lose sight of the magnitude of our industry in the world of travel, trade and transportation.  It is indeed a rich history that spans centuries.  Today as a surviving marine society we look to enjoy the comraderie of our peers, and to share the history that illuminates our profession and especially the history of Portland, her mariners, and her harbor.  

A Rich History

From the Society’s book:
Portland Marine Society, 1796-1996    A Bicentennial History
                             Nicholas Dean & John K. Moulton

Before looking into some of the early history of the Society and some of its more colorful members—it is worth putting the Portland Marine Society into two contexts, those of the rise of that unique institution, the American marine society of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and the Portland waterfront from which this particular society arose.

The oldest American marine society is Boston’s. Initially founded in 1742 as The Fellowship Club, primarily for charitable purposes, it was incorporated as the Boston Marine Society when it received its charter from the state in 1754. It was followed by the Salem Marine Society in 1766, New York in 1769, Newburyport in 1772, Portland in 1796, and Portsmouth in 1808. Newburyport divided its funds among its surviving members and surrendered its charter in 1920. Portsmouth, which had ceased operations in 1905, has been revived to publish books on local maritime history, an ongoing project which began in 1982.

The dual purpose of theses societies reflects the uncertainties of the age which produced them.  Accustomed as we are today to satellite-assisted navigation and accurate charts and coast pilots, it is nearly inconceivable how little the mariners of circa 1800 had in the way of accurate information, and how few soundings there were on the charts.